Saturday, September 27, 2014

Stubs – Shoulder Arms

Shoulder Arms (1918) Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Sydney Chaplin Directed by Charlie Chaplin. Produced by Charlie Chaplin. Screenplay by Charlie Chaplin.  Run Time: 46 minutes. U.S.  Black and White. Silent, War, Comedy

World War I, which started 100 years ago in July 1914, lasted 4 years, 3 months and 1 week before the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918. In that span of time, the war to end all wars involved nearly 70 million military personnel, left 16 million people dead and millions more wounded in one of history’s bloodiest conflicts. As a result of the war, the German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian empires vanished, the Russian tsar was overthrown, new countries were formed in Europe and the Middle East and the seeds for World War II were planted.

The U.S. did not get involved until 1917, drawn in by the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 and by the release of the Zimmerman Telegram, in which German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmerman instructed the German ambassador in Mexico, Heinrich von Eckardt, to approach the Mexican government and propose a military alliance, promising that Germany would fund an invasion to reconquer Texas and the Southwest U.S. Mexico ignored the request and after the U.S. officially entered the war on April 6, 1917, officially rejected it.

For about a year and a half, U.S. troops fought alongside other Allied Powers against the German-led Central Powers in Europe.

For the most part, Hollywood stayed on the sidelines. While the war would inspire such films as Wings (1927), All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Hell’s Angels (1930), The African Queen (1951), Paths of Glory (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962), to name a few, only four films were made in the U.S. in 1918 dealing with the World War. (And one of those, The Heart of Humanity, came out after the Armistice.) As contrast, in 1939, two years before the U.S. entered World War II, Hollywood had made four films about the Nazi threat. 

Of the three other films in 1918, the first released was D.W. Griffith’s Hearts of the World, a wartime propaganda film made at the request of the British government to change the minds of neutral-minded Americans. Samuel Goldwyn produced The Service Star, a film about a woman pretending to be the fiancée of a famous flying ace. Both are dramas, which seemed to be the appropriate tone, given the gravity of the conflict.

But the most famous film made about the War during the War was a comedy, Shoulder Arms, starring, written, directed and produced by Charlie Chaplin. It was released on October 20, 1918 by First National about three weeks ahead of the Armistice.

Having finished his contract with Mutual in 1917, Chaplin had moved on to a more lucrative deal with First National, an association of independent theater owners which began to produce their own films in 1917. (The company would merge with Warner Bros. in 1928.) First National signed deals with Mary Pickford and Chaplin, each worth a million dollars.

With his First National contract, Chaplin was free to build his own studio, now the home of Jim Henson Productions, in Hollywood. His first film under his new deal was A Dog’s Life (1918), released in April. He followed that by going on the Third Liberty Bond campaign with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and Al Jolson, promoting the idea that buying a Liberty Bond was the patriotic thing to do. Chaplin then produced, with his own money, a short film, The Bond (1918), designed to further promote the sale of Liberty Bonds. (In the British version of the film, Uncle Sam is replaced by John Bull.)

The Chaplin Studios built with money from his First National contract.

Perhaps the experience of selling Bonds for the War effort influenced Chaplin’s choice of subject matter for his next film. The idea of making a comedy about the War made a lot of people nervous in Hollywood, including First National. The War was not something to be made fun of. But Chaplin was excited by the idea and spent four months working on the film.

The film stars Chaplin as his famous Tramp character in the Army’s “awkward squad” at boot camp. He has trouble with the basics, which frustrates his sergeant (Sydney Chaplin). His large feet get in his way when he tries to make an about face and even when he marches. When dismissed, the Tramp, credited as the Doughboy, is exhausted and falls asleep almost instantly on his cot in his tent.

Doughboy (Charlie Chaplin) puts the awkward in the "awkward squad."

All too quickly, he is awakened and shipped overseas into the trenches where the first half of the film takes place. The newly arrived Doughboy finds that he has to share his cramped bunker with two other soldiers. The Tramp's first act is to find the right place to hang a cheese grater on the wall to use as a backscratcher; oh the little comforts of home. But most of the time in the trenches is spent on finding humor in the lousy conditions, the loneliness and the danger of living so close to the lines of battle.

A cheese grater serving as a backscratcher provides Charlie with some comfort.

The loneliness is played up when there is a mail call and everyone in the unit seems to receive mail but our Tramp. Showing there is more than humor to the Tramp, we see that he is melancholy, trying to act brave, but feeling very alone. He finds himself reading over the shoulder of a fellow soldier and mirroring that soldier’s reactions to what is contained in his letter, much to the annoyance of the recipient.

Lonely, Charlie reads another soldier's letter.

There is smoke all around which oftentimes fills the trenches, but we’re led to believe these are from smoke bombs and explosions and not from mustard gas. The Tramp does don a gas mask, but it’s to hide the smell of limburger cheese, which the Tramp is sent from someone back home, along with bread that is as hard as a rock. (Turns out, he does receive mail, but just after everyone else has gotten theirs.) The smell is so bad that the Tramp throws the soft cheese into the German trench, hitting their diminutive leader (Loyal Underwood) smack in the face.

When it rains in the trenches it pours as the Tramp finds out. After standing guard duty, he finds that his underground bunker is flooded, so high in fact that there are four soldiers sharing the rather dry conditions of the upper bunk and one roommate barely keeping his mouth and nose above the waterline while he manages to still sleep. There is always a little mischievousness in the Tramp, which he demonstrates by creating a little wave in the water, which momentarily causes the sleeping man to choke and wake up. He scolds the laughing Tramp, but when a floating candle passes by, the Tramp is sure to blow it so it passes under the sleeping man’s out of the water foot.

Charlie stands guard duty in the rain, but things are worse in his bunker.

The troops are roused from their bunks by a call to arms. They are going over the wall in 15 minutes. While they wait for their turn, the Tramp takes a surprisingly lead role, but when he climbs up the ladder to get out, the ladder falls back.

Charlie looking ready to lead the charge over the wall.

But once in battle, the Tramp is an amazingly good soldier, we’re told capturing 13 enemy soldiers. When the diminutive leader balks, he takes him over his lap and spanks him, much to the enjoyment of his former unit. When an officer asks the Tramp how he captured 13 soldiers, he says through title cards, “I surrounded them.”

Charlie captures German soldiers and their diminutive leader (Loyal Underwood).

Back in the trenches, the Tramp seems a little more at ease with the dangers of battle. While lunching with a fellow soldier, they need a bottle opened so he simply holds it up high enough so that an enemy soldier will shoot off the top. When he needs a cigarette lit, he does the same thing. He seems so much at ease that he volunteers for a mission, before learning that he might not return. Too late, he tries to let another soldier take the mission, but is turned down.

Behind enemy lines, the Tramp is disguised like a tree. This gives Chaplin an opportunity to show off his physical or slapstick sense of humor. When wandering German troops go looking for firewood, they try to chop him down. Using his limbs, he manages to knock each one out.

Behind enemy lines, Charlie is disguised as a tree.

A U.S. soldier (Sydney Chaplin) trying to get a message back to his company is taken prisoner and is about to be executed. The Tramp uses his tree branches again to knock out the soldiers and allows the soldier to escape. But a portly German solider takes chase and the Tramp runs into a nearby forest where he easily blends in with the foliage. But the solider shoots and bayonets trees surrounding the Tramp to the point where he flees before he’s next. He serpentines as he runs and avoids getting shot. Cornered, he escapes through a narrow drain pipe, shedding his disguise so he can get away.

Charlie uses his tree limbs to help free an American
soldier (Sydney Chaplin) who is about to be executed.

The Tramp takes refuge in a bombed out farm house. Even though the outer walls have been destroyed, he still opens the window to look out and draws the shade before he takes a nap in the upstairs bed. The house, it turns out, belongs to a French girl (Edna Purviance) who discovers the soldier. She starts to clean one of his wounds thinking the Tramp is still asleep. But he gives up the ruse and talks to her, convincing her through pantomime that he is an American soldier.

French Girl (Edna Purviance) discovers Charlie asleep in her bed.

More German troops arrive, but Edna tries to tell them that the little American soldier they are looking for is not there. But they don’t believe her and set up an ambush under the stairs. They trap the Tramp momentarily, but he quickly turns the machine gun on them. But he loses the upper hand when another German soldier arrives on the scene. But when the farm house finally crumbles, the Tramp is able to escape. The same is not true for the French girl.

German soldiers think they have Charlie right where they want him,
but he quickly turns the tables, make that machine gun, on them.

She’s taken to the local German military headquarters, where the officer in charge plans to ‘interrogate’ her in private. Luckily for her, the Tramp arrives. Not sure if he knew she was going to be there or not, but he manages to take the German officer captive and locks him up in the closet. When the Kaiser (Sydney Chaplin) and staff arrive on their tour of the front, they find Edna alone in the office. The Tramp emerges from the closet still dressing in the officer’s uniform. Thinking they’ve interrupted a tryst, they order the Tramp and Edna out, telling him they’ll deal with him later. Once alone the Kaiser and his two advisors work on battle plans.

The Kaiser (Sydney Chaplin) and two of his advisors work on battle plans.

Outside, the American soldier, who has been recaptured, is brought in escorted by troops. Still in his officer disguise, the Tramp orders the troops away and takes personal command of the prisoner. The Kaiser’s drivers keep a watchful eye, so the Tramp has to act like he’s throttling the prisoner, when in fact they are friends. 

Disguised as a German officer, Charlie has no choice but to act mean to the American soldier.

When the drivers get out one by one to investigate the shenanigans, the Tramp and the American soldier knock them out. Trading uniforms with the American soldier, Edna and the Tramp dress like the Kaiser’s drivers. The soldier, now dressed like a German officer, returns to his hiding place for his communications equipment and notifies his unit what’s going on.

Charlie and Edna dress up like the Kaiser's drivers in order to capture him.

When the Kaiser does come back to the car, they drive him back across the front lines and present him to his superiors. The Tramp and the French girl are heralded as heroes for bringing the War to an end. In the midst of the celebration, the Tramp is awoken from the dream by his fellow soldiers. He is back lying on his cot. It had all been a dream.

Despite First National’s fears, Shoulder Arms was a big success, both with the critics and at the box office. Even veterans returning from the front lines loved it. The film was so successful in fact that Chaplin requested more money, which First National refused.

Frustrated with their lack of concern for quality, and worried about rumors of a possible merger between First National and Famous Players-Lasky, Chaplin formed his own distribution company, United Artists, with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith, who replaced cowboy star William S. Hart in 1919. Each star received a 20% share in the joint venture with the other 20% being controlled by lawyer William Gibbs McAdoo, a former California Senator and Secretary of the Treasury who served as general counsel for the company.

William Gibbs McAdoo, the partner in United Artists you never hear about.

Chaplin was eager to start with his new company and offered to buy out his contract with First National. They declined however and insisted that he complete the final six films he owed them. Those six films took years to complete and Chaplin wouldn’t release a film through United Artists until the September 26, 1923 release of A Woman of Paris, an atypical drama starring Edna Purviance in the lead and Chaplin in a small cameo role.

Sydney Chaplin, who plays multiple roles in this film, is Charlie Chaplin’s elder half-brother by the same mother. A stage comedian in his own right, he was the first one to get a contract with Fred Karno and worked hard to have his brother brought into the troupe. In fact, it was Syd who was the bigger star on stage.

Sydney Chaplin, Charlie's brother.

When Charlie began his negotiations with Keystone, he suggested they bring in his brother as well. He appeared in a series of shorts and one feature at the studio, A Submarine Pirate (1915), which was the studio’s second most financially successful film, next to Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914). Sydney would become not only an occasional actor in his brother’s films, but also his business manager, leaving acting to negotiate his brother’s deals with Mutual and First National. He would receive his own million dollar contract from Famous Players-Lasky, but that resulted in only one film, King, Queen, Joker (1921). After that, he would appear in his brother’s films Pay Day (1921) and The Pilgrim (1923). He would also appear with Colleen Moore in The Perfect Flapper (1924), a silent version of the play Charley’s Aunt (1925) and five films for Warner Bros., including The Better ‘Ole (1926), the third Warner Bros. film to have a Vitaphone soundtrack.

Sydney Chaplin was also active in aviation, founding the first privately owned American airlines in 1919, the Syd Chaplin Airline Company, based out of Santa Monica. The company only lasted a year and Chaplin got out of the airline business.

He returned to England and made his last film for British International Pictures, A Little Bit of Fluff (1928). His career was cut short due to allegations that he bit off the nipple of actress Molly Wright in a sexual assault. By 1930, he’d fled England and was declared bankrupt.

As with any Chaplin film of this time, the story was developed as the film-making continued. Originally conceived as five reels, rather than the three that were released, there were scenes of the Tramp’s domestic life before the Army that were cut from the film. Chaplin would never hesitate to work and refine an idea, but when it didn’t work he wasn’t afraid of excising it from the finished product.

Chaplin between takes still dressed in his tree costume.

Shoulder Arms has two main sections: the first part which takes place on the front lines in the trenches and the second which takes place behind enemy lines. The two sections are related, but really don’t have that much to do with one another. Both films are like separate shorts strung together by the common overarching storyline of World War I.

For all the concern about making a comedy about the War while it was still being fought, Chaplin proved his gamble to be a good one. Not only is there room for his physical/slapstick humor, but also for the actor to portray other emotions as well, including melancholy and love. The Tramp is both a mischievous man/boy, but he is also a sympathetic character. He not only manages to make fun of the enemy, in this case the German army, but also Army life during the war in general.

Shoulder Arms would also play a role in Chaplin’s banishment from the U.S. The film was cited for its political activism, which, along with Chaplin’s own espousals about left wing causes, like helping the Soviets, our allies, in World War II, would make some very powerful enemies. When the U.S. went Red Scare crazy during the McCarthy era, Chaplin, who had never become a U.S. citizen, was an easy target. When he left for the premiere of Limelight in London in 1952, he was not allowed back in the country.

But the film is the thing and this is one of Chaplin’s better silent film efforts. You can watch through his career as he becomes ever more the master of his craft. The seeds are planted in this film for The Kid (1921), City Lights (1931) and The Great Dictator (1940). Like the best Chaplin, as well as the best Buster Keaton and the best Harold Lloyd films, this one stands the test of time and should be seen not only for the historical value, but also for its humor. There are several laugh out loud moments and this is one film that should not be missed.

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